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narwe fractal
Narwe fractal courtesy of Janet Preslar, FrActivity



  • ...something that means more than what it is. It is an item that has a literal meaning in the story but suggests or represents other meanings as well (Arp & Perrine)

Types of Symbols

  • object
  • person
  • situation
  • action
  • miscellaneous

Symbols: Person

  • Often hidden in the name
  • Sometimes represented by character's
    • job or occupation
    • physical description
      • age
      • gender
      • race
      • infirmities
    • actions

Symbols: Action

  • Can be associated with character or several characters
  • Often you look at not only what was done, but what was not done
  • Can be disassociated from character if action is setting-based

Symbols: Situation

  • Can be momentary or a theme carried throughout story
  • Take into account setting
    • when
    • where
  • Look for repeated symbols
    • death
    • joy

Symbols: Miscellaneous

Spoken Word

  • Usually applies to the character speaking
  • Can be symbolic of entire story's theme
  • Look for:
    • Inflection
    • Tone
    • What is not said
  • Look for discrepancies between actions and verbal exchanges

Symbols: Objects

  • Can seem minor
  • Often explained explicitly
  • Repetition is common here
  • Can often reflect on other aspects
    • character
    • setting

Symbols: Brainstorming

  • Pick obvious stuff first
    • names
    • places
    • situations
  • Use these, then, as jumping off points to find less obvious material
  • use your secondary sources

Using Symbolism in Your Papers

  • Define the object's literal meaning
  • Define object's symbolic meaning
  • Link to story's theme
  • For more, see SYMBOLISM II

© T. T. Eiland, January 1998
Last modified: March 30, 2000